Lewis Merenstein: “It was so beautiful, it was hard to take.”

Lewis Merenstein, who has died, produced Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and executive-produced the follow-up, Moondance. I interviewed an obviously frail Merenstein last year. Here is the full transcript of that conversation, about the making of Astral Weeks – and Afterwards.

‘Van’s manager Bob Schwaid and I were friends, and he got me involved. I went to Boston at Bob’s request to hear Van. We went to ACE recording studio, I walked in and he was sitting on a stool. He played me “Astral Weeks” and it took me about 30 seconds to know I wanted to work with the material: “If I venture in the slipstream…” He was being born again, he was going through the tunnel and coming out again. The lyric went straight to my soul, or my spirit. To me it was very clear what he was saying, but nobody else knew what the hell he was talking about, because it wasn’t “Brown Eyed Girl”.

weeksI came from a jazz background, and I heard jazz chords that could be played with it. After 15 minutes I went to Bob and said, “Let’s go do it!” We took Van and went back to New York. Bob and I were sharing a space off of Sixth Avenue, we had an office in the front and a little rehearsal room in the back, and it seems like Van unpacked, came over and we started doing it. It was definitely something that was being guided by a greater power. At that time Van was very passive. He was coming from Bang Records and Bert Berns, and they were pretty aggressive people, and he was coming from a hit song, and choruses, and I felt something was going on. Something was being born. I know he was not conscious of the full dimension of it.

He needed a place to stay, and he needed a new deal. We’d sit around the office and he’d play tunes, and I’d mark on a piece of paper the songs I thought would go together for this album, and which ones would be for the next album. He had most of the material for Moondance, but I sensed a story in these songs. I’d never heard any of those tunes before. I selected a story which I thought was going on in Van’s internal life at that time. He would just keep playing tunes. Van wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and I never said, “What did you mean by this?” I knew what he meant. What little I learned about him on our trip back to New York, I knew what was happening.

It came through you. It was magic. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.

 

He had some players from Boston, a flute player and a bass player, but they were young and not terribly accomplished, and they weren’t of the calibre I was used to using. I knew I needed people who could pick up the feeling. I had used Richard Davis quite often, and he was a highly renowned bass player. He was special. Richard made a call to his regular buddies. Connie Kay was with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jay Berliner was a fine, fine guitarist of any nature. They were all just marvellous players, super pros, and they were open souls. They played right from the heart.

Warner’s had a small rehearsal studio, and we went in there to rehearse. Larry Fallon wanted to come and hear what was happening and see if he could contribute. Right away he wanted to do this and that, and I said, “Larry, it’s not that kind of an album. It has to come out the way Van is expressing himself. After that is done we can see what touches might be needed. I don’t want any charts, I want the direction to come from the music.” I didn’t want it to turn into a rock and roll album.

I told Bob I was going to book a studio – we might as well do what we’re going to do. It was a union date, there was nothing sacred about it. We went into Brooks Arthur studio [Century Sound]. I told the players what I meant, and Van went into the booth. It wasn’t even a closed booth, it was one of those tall fibreglass booths, so you could look out. I said, “Go.”

If you listen to the very first tune, “Astral Weeks” Richard leads, and he leads all the way through. He lays the groundwork. It was magical, musically magical. It was so beautiful, it was hard to take. There were no charts. They might have run the first few minutes of a song down a couple of times, and then we did it. There was never a full take. There was nothing more to be said, there was nowhere to go. It was all there. Everybody got the sense of what was being said musically, even if they didn’t get what was being sung verbally by Van. It was like a musical puzzle that fit perfectly.

He interacted very little with the other musicians. He had a habit of turning his back on people. He was very nervous, he was like a little child – he was truly being born again. He had [his wife] Janet Planet. I don’t know what transpired between being with the Bang people and then coming to Boston, but he obviously went through a rebirth. It was like a story, like a little play. If Van knew that it was deep down in some place that was never conveyed.

I sat and listened to that album almost every night for a year, because I had no one to talk to about it

 

With “Slim Slow Slider”, there was nothing left to put on that album. We needed time. It was the mood of an ending, I was following the sensitivity of the music and using my own sense of creativity. Nothing else could end the album. I don’t know what was taken out of that song. Nothing terribly memorable. If you hear the reverb at the end of it, it’s tape reverb, and when we had enough time I stopped it. I’ve always wished I could make up a story that would satisfy someone who wanted an observation of what was going on. All I know is that whatever happened, happened. Everybody was in it. Richard was bent over his bass with his eyes closed, listening to Van.

I was totally blown away. It came through you. It was magic. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.

We overdubbed strings in another studio, Masterphone, and the horns were done in the same studio. Larry went in with them. They weren’t full string sections, they were small, and they didn’t play too much. On “Astral Weeks” they come up and across, cascading up and down the other side. It wasn’t very intricate, but it was fulfilling. We did horns on “Young Lovers Do”. I wasn’t particularly happy with that. Van was there, he had comments during the string overdub. Once he felt safe enough to be verbal, he was verbal. It was mostly mumble or grumble. He was given the gift as we all were. He’s a marvellous talent, but at times I don’t believe he knows what’s going on. He was the most removed from it. He didn’t look for answers, he just did it. I knew I had been given a gift, and an opportunity. I don’t think Van had a clue how special it was, it was just part of what he was writing.

I put on the label, In The Beginning and Afterwards. He screamed, “Who told you to do that?” I said, “No one, I just felt it. That’s my two cents worth.”

I sat and listened to that album almost every night for a year, because I had no one to talk to about it besides Bob. Joe Smith at WB said, “What the blank did you give me?” “What did you expect Joe?” “Something like ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’”

moonWe couldn’t get him booked. People wouldn’t stop eating and drinking when he was playing. Rolling Stone made the album. After close to a year, no one would mention it, and then [RS reviewer] Ben Fong Torres was respected, and everybody all of a sudden discovered it and started playing it. That was the miracle of it.

The album was like an ending. From there he was flying away, and out of that came a happier person, which was Moondance.

Moondance was sad for me. He could be pretty wild back then, he was drinking. Van started pulling away from Bob, [manager] Mary Martin snatched him from Bob. Everything suddenly became Van, Van, Van, Van. I don’t know how many producers he went thought at WB.

It was a more pragmatic album. That’s what he learned up in Woodstock, so that I could be killed off. It was put together at the WB rehearsal studio. I picked the songs out, up at the WB studio, I did the road map for that album when we were rehearsing, and then I got demoted. I heard he had thrown a bass across the studio, and for me that was it. It became a nasty situation. Mary talked Van into getting rid of everybody, he wasn’t going to come up with another album unless I gave myself another title and Bob was out of it totally. I chose to go along with it. I made sure WB got the tapes, got the union papers. I think he was angry that he couldn’t claim Astral Weeks. But I’m terribly proud of the album, and I’m so glad I heard what I heard when I heard it.’

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‘I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that…’ Kevin Rowland, 2012

Dexys Midnight Runners have a new album out: Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish Country & Soul. In 2012, I chatted to Kevin Rowland at the time of the release of their previous album, One Day I’m Going to Soar

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“Everyone wants to talk about the past,” says Kevin Rowland with a sigh. “That drags me down.” A pain, perhaps, but hardly a surprise. Fully 27 years elapsed between the third Dexys Midnight Runners album, Don’t Stand Me Down, and the fourth, One Day I’m Going to Soar, released in June. When the former came out Rowland was 32. Next year he’ll be 60. Until the release of One Day I’m Going to Soar, for most Dexys fans the past was pretty much all they had.

For Rowland, of course, life rolled on. In that time he released two solo albums, had a bruising brush with cocaine, became a squatter, sang The Greatest Love of All at the 1999 Reading Festival wearing a dress and a pair of stockings, reformed his old band for a few shows in 2003, and moved back to London from Brighton. There have been false starts, prolonged silences and plenty of rumours, but until this year no new album. “I just wasn’t confident enough,” he explains. “That’s a fact. Nowhere near confident enough in my voice and my songs, and I sort of knew that, so I didn’t try really hard. Music comes through you. Some people are lucky and have it coming through them all the time, but that’s not been me.”

There are those for whom Rowland is simply the singer of Come On Eileen and Geno, a relic from the early 80s last seen emoting in front of a vast back-projection of darts player Jocky Wilson on Top of the Pops in 1982. For others, he is a wayward genius whose emergence from the margins has something of the return of the prodigal about it.

kevinrowland181206wBack in Dexys’ heyday he gained a reputation for being difficult: punching journalists, wrestling with record companies, haunted by a kind of puritanical perfectionism. He seems calmer these days – “I live like a monk on tour” – yet still driven by some highly combustible internal force. Even the way his accent alternates between chirpy London and his doleful native Brummie suggests the mood swings may be rather pronounced.

Like most mavericks, Rowland entirely lacks the nostalgia gene when it comes to his work. “We definitely don’t do a greatest hits show,” he says more than once. “I didn’t wait this long to come back to be a human jukebox for people’s memories. No offence to anybody but that’s not what we do. I have to be able to stand on the stage and relate to a lyric now. Before I sing I’m thinking, What am I saying and who am I singing this to? To get the best performance I have to be in the song. It’s exhausting, but not connecting to the song, that would be worse.”

It means that although he has finally found a satisfactory live arrangement for Come On Eileen – an albatross-cum-golden goose about which he has always felt ambivalent – there are many other songs from the Dexys catalogue, including Geno, that no longer fit. “In any given year there are only about nine old songs that I can relate to,” he says. “Me and Mick [Talbot, Dexys keyboardist] sat down and I said, ‘I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that… I think I could sing that but I need to change that lyric or tweak the rhythm.’ It was 30 years ago, and I feel like somebody else now.”

To underscore the fact that he is “completely focused on looking forward”, the opening hour of the Dexys live set on their current tour features One Day I’m Going to Soar performed in its entirety. It’s a highly theatrical affair. “There’s a lot to this show,” he agrees. “It’s quite dramatic.” On several songs Rowland spars with Madeleine Hyland, a singer he only met six weeks before the album was recorded. “Finding her really was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara,” he says. “It took at least five years.” As their two-hander unfolds Rowland woos her, wins her, then walks away, because he is, as one song title baldly states, Incapable of Love.

Read my Artsdesk review of Dexys in 2012

The songs highlight a clear conflict between the performer and the private man. In person Rowland bristles at the slightest sign of intrusion – “I don’t like being asked personal questions. ‘How’s your private life?’ Like I’m going to talk about it in a newspaper!” – and yet in common with much of his past work, One Day I’m Going to Soar is a devastatingly frank account of intimate insecurities. The album is funny at times, but at heart it’s a quite remarkable litany of fear and self-loathing. “Sometimes I think, fucking hell, this is a bit close to the bone, but you know what? Music is kind of sacred to me. It really is like a higher thing, and when I get a bolt of inspiration, no matter what it is – wear this, do that, sing that, write that lyric – if it comes clear and pure I go with it. I don’t question it.”

Rowland admits that in the 80s he was far too uptight to enjoy success. Even today, he struggles to get genuine satisfaction from the acclaim that has surrounded the return of Dexys. “I’d love to say I was having a fucking great time, but I’m not,” he says. “I’m not having a terrible time, I don’t want to sound self-pitying. We got the record out the way we wanted, it turned out better than I could have hoped for, but maybe because I haven’t done this for a long time going back to it is always a source of anxiety. Some days I feel optimistic, but most days I’m thinking, I must remember to do this, I need to make a list of that, does so-and-so know we need to do that? That’s how my brain is. I’m prone to anxiety but I work hard at it, and it’s working a whole lot better.”

When the wonderful Don’t Stand Me Down album stiffed in 1985, Rowland slowly dropped off the mainstream radar, almost as though its poor reception knocked the fight out of him. It’s good to have him back, positive and energised, yet four albums in 30-odd years remains a slight return for his talents. Does he feel there should have been more music? “There probably could have been, but who cares?” he shrugs. “I’d rather have made four good albums than 14 albums and six of them are shit.” The downbeat Brummie cedes the floor to the upbeat barrow boy. “’Cos it’s a good record, isn’t it? They’re all pretty good, aren’t they?”

Cowboy Song coverage

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There has been lots of activity around the publication of Cowboy Song on February 25. Here is a summary of some of it, with links where online content is accessible.

Reviews

‘An outstanding piece of work… There have been other books on Philip but this is the definitive biography’ – John Spain, Irish Independent: http://goo.gl/E98qmh

‘Excellent… painstaking… [a] fine retelling of the messy life of Thin Lizzy’s charismatic frontman’ – The Guardian: http://bit.ly/24SAbDt

‘The truest measure of the man we have… a must-read for anybody ever smitten by Lizzy’s fatally-flawed romantic’ – Mojo: http://bit.ly/1TIpfUW

‘Packs a real emotional punch’ – The Spectator: http://bit.ly/1Ow3Vu1

‘Heads and shoulders above the usual rock hagiography… it paints a poignant picture of a shy, sensitive artist [who] sacrificed his life on the altar of rock excess’ – Sunday Telegraph:  http://bit.ly/1QmrxWh

‘An affectionate, impeccably researched biography… Cowboy Song does Philip Parris Lynott very proud indeed’ – Mail on Sunday: http://dailym.ai/1naKXD5

‘In many ways an admirable book… there are times when Graeme Thomson’s prose reaches astute heights and stirs recognitions’ – Joseph O’Connor, Irish Times: http://goo.gl/lngmF9

‘A considerable achievement… the definitive “life”‘ – The Herald: http://bit.ly/1S8ENjK

‘Well-researched… poignant… revealing… what emerges is a jigsaw of contradictions’ – RTE Guide

‘Outstanding’ – Belfast Telegraph: http://bit.ly/1LMdyF1

‘Meticulously researched, richly detailed… a compelling read’ 9/10 – Classic Rock: http://bit.ly/1RAeM7D

‘A ribald, authentic, entertaining tale… This is no eulogy, but an honest, often painful account of the price of star power’ – Irish Examiner: 

‘A highly efficient telling of Lynott’s life… riven with close-to-the-bone unsentimentality’ – Sunday Business Post

‘A genuinely sympathetic portrait… Thomson casts [Lynott] as a tragic romantic hero’ – Uncut

‘[A] satisfying portrayal of a rock warrior who sadly did not live long enough to be a survivor’ – Irish MoS

Interviews

/ Print

Sunday Telegraph: http://bit.ly/1QmrxWh

RTE TEN: http://goo.gl/aIfyL3

Irish Examiner: http://goo.gl/T80HIA

/ Audio

Today programme, BBC Radio 4: https://audioboom.com/boos/4183704-a-cowboy-s-life

Cowboy Song special, The Ralph McLean Show, BBC Radio Ulster: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072mx2y

Tom Dunne, Newstalk FM: http://bit.ly/1pcdjhV

The Last Word, Today FM: http://bit.ly/1XPInzy (starts 38:00)

RTE Arena discussion: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/arena/programmes/2016/0301/771872-arena-tuesday-1-march-2016/

Jim Fitzpatrick talks about Cowboy Song on Newstalk FM: http://bit.ly/1Uyli4K

Interview with Sue Marchant (starts 31:00): http://bbc.in/1R1NoWu

Interview with Giles Brown, Talk Radio Europe: https://soundcloud.com/talk-radio-europe/phil-lynotts-authorised-biographer-graeme-thomson-speaks-to-tres-giles-brown

Articles

Words and Guitars: http://goo.gl/NshKmg

Guardian, 10 of the Best – Thin Lizzy: http://goo.gl/d59nD0 – with an accompanying Spotify playlist: https://goo.gl/v4oE6a

Classic Rock: http://bit.ly/1V2DAMy

The Irish Post: http://bit.ly/1pa6zRj

New Zealand Herald: http://m.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11634219